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O’Brien: Riverside-Brookfield, the new basketball hotbed

High school basketball can sweep over a community like a fever. It happened in Northbrook during the Jon Scheyer years and in Waukegan during the Jereme Richmond years. Recently, Tyler Ulis’ Marian Catholic teams and Jalen Brunson’s Stevenson squads ignited a spark in their respective towns.

Riverside-Brookfield doesn’t have that kind of star power — never has. The Bulldogs have built things slowly and steadily. Last year was the best season in school history as the team won its first ever sectional championship. The gym in Riverside was packed all season and the fans traveled everywhere to watch their Bulldogs, who were undefeated until late December.

“It was amazing the support we got from the community and how many people came out,” Riverside-Brookfield coach Tom McCloskey. “It’s a tight-knit community so I think everyone was excited. We played an exciting brand of basketball and I think people appreciated that.”

Fans were turned away from the sectional final game against Morton. The Bulldogs, without a single high-major D-I recruit, became a local sensation. That takes more than just a winning team.

“It feels good to have built something,” McCloskey said. “We’ve had a lot of great kids. We’ve had a lot of non-D-I players that have had great college careers. We’ve had kids that have loved to play and we have the program headed in the right direction. Kids enjoy basketball in this community. The great Junior Bulldogs program is a big part of that.”

Monday was the first day of basketball practice across the state. Time for McCloskey and his squad to try and recapture the magic. It probably won’t be hard. The Bulldogs lost to Stevenson, the eventual Class 4A state champions, in the super sectionals last year. Four starters return from that team: Daniko Jackson, Jalen Clanton, Mark Smith and Henry Trelenberg.

“We can take a step forward this season,” Clanton said. “Last year we had a really big run and we just want to pick up where we left off. I’ve been waiting for today for a long while now, a few months.”

Jackson, a senior point guard, was the team’s leader last season. Clanton had a breakout sophomore year and will be one of the state’s top junior guards. Every high school team starts in the backcourt, and that is a rock solid combination. Trelenberg is a terrific shooter and an underrated all-around scorer, able to create offense off the dribble.

Smith, a 6-6 senior, has a massive amount of responsibility. If the Bulldogs have a weakness it is size and rebounding. A lot of that will fall on his shoulders.

“Other guys have to step up,” McCloskey said. “Our success this season will probably come down to rebounding, plain and simple.”

Senior Skyler Nash, a 6-5 transfer from Young, should be a major asset in that department. He’s strong and athletic and ready to prove himself after not receiving a lot of playing time with the Dolphins.

It’s a fun recipe this year in Riverside. Forget big names and star power, there is always enough of that all over the area. The Bulldogs just might be able to do things a bit differently, using teamwork and balance to earn a trip to Peoria in March.

“Expectations are definitely higher,” Jackson said. “We just need to play poised and under control. There’s no reason why we can’t make it downstate this year.”